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Deep Blue Defense
— A Modern Force at Sea
◆Text by Wu Dengfeng Photographs by Zha Chunming

An advanced guided missile destroyer during an exercise at sea.

A fighter prepares to launch from a carrier deck.

A submarine displays the colors.

 New model submarine.

Marine special forces.

An advanced guided missile destroyer and support vessel.

Chinese navy personnel in Portsmouth, Great Britain, September 2007.

James T. Conway, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, confers with female Chinese marine personnel.

A resupply exercise.

On April 23, 2009, the First Chinese Naval Festival will commence in Qingdao City, Shandong Province.

The festival will take place around the 60th anniversary of the founding of China’s naval forces. The navies of 33 nations are expected to dispatch delegations to attend the event.

Six decades ago, the newly-formed and very limited Chinese navy set sail from Baimamiao Village, Taizhou City, Jiangsu Province. Today, the nation’s now technologically advanced naval forces comprise five elements: armed surface ships, submarine forces, naval aviation, coastal defense arms and marine corps. All are evolving from a traditionally mechanized structure into more high-tech command and control systems.

The joint operation command and information systems are in place, and development of a new generation of defense forces is strengthened, with further force optimization seeing steady progress. Comprehensive offshore supportability has taken preliminary form, and ocean maneuvering operational capability is well grounded.

After 60 years of construction and development, China’s naval forces can now address various security threats and fulfill its vital mission.

Mission Advance

On April 23, 1949, from the surging Yangtze River, China’s naval force headed towards the sea. The Chinese Naval Museum in Qingdao well represents this era in the country’s naval development.

In 1954, although greatly limited by fiscal constraints, the Chinese central government allocated a relatively huge sum of money to purchase four Soviet-Union-made destroyers. In 1962, the first made-in-China submarine chaser was successfully manufactured. In 1971, Ji’nan, the first guided missile destroyer to be independently designed and built by China, was commissioned. In 1975, the first made-in-China missile frigate was delivered to the army for service. From importing arms from other countries in the past to manufacturing domestically today, China’s naval forces and equipment have witnessed rapid development.

In 1981, after one year out of public view, the Ji’nan again emerged. Besides the anti-ship missile already equipped, a carrier aircraft platform and satellite navigation systems were added to the warship. Its anti-submarine search capability and attack capability were greatly enhanced. Since then, Chinese naval forces have tacked a high-tech course.

In the 1990s, the warship Harbin, the second generation of China’s self-made guided missile destroyer, was incorporated into the navy. The warship could carry helicopters, and was equipped with air defense missile and anti-submarine systems. With the advent of this more advanced destroyer technology, China’s warships headed towards the direction of general purpose and ocean operations.

In recent years, a new generation of guided missile destroyers joined China’s navy, equipping the surface force with antiaircraft and large area air defense capabilities. At the same time, a new generation of missile frigates, missile gunboats, submarine chasers, mine sweepers, and ocean supply ships were gradually incorporated into the force, greatly improving the navy’s ocean-going combat capability.

The naval submarine force has also entered a new phase of rapid development. The year 1970 witnessed the launch of China’s first nuclear submarine; 1981 saw the launch of the first made-in-China nuclear-powered missile submarine; and 1982 witnessed China’s first successful underwater launch of the JL-1 missile from the Chinese submarine. At present, both the quantity and gross tonnage of China’s submarines have increased dozens of times, as compared to when the force was first established.

The 21st Century saw another significant development for the naval aviation corps. The Flying Leopard fighter bomber, with greater radius of operation and enhanced sea attack capability, and the third generation of combat planes, with a stronger informational war capability, were incorporated into the naval force, enabling all-weather operations. With the close cooperation of new carrier-borne fighters and naval surface forces, anti-submarine search and attack-submarine capabilities were further enhanced. Operational capabilities of reconnaissance planes, tankers, and bombers were upgraded, laying a solid foundation for the control of air and of electromagnetic space during sea battles.

More prospects for the future are unfolding. Coastal defense forces now have missile capability, replacing artillery. The marine forces has achieved mechanization and information orientation. The new amphibious operational equip-ment has greater maneuverability and landing capability. Thus the major five elements of China’s sea forces have been updated and upgraded.

Task Global

During the first visit to the four countries of the Americas, Chinese navy officers and sailors celebrate with Hawaiian citizens.

In May 2008, Chinese marine corps carried out rescue operations after the massive Wenchuan earthquake.

In August 2005, a fleet was formed to participate in the joint Sino-Russia military exercise. 

In September 2007, for the first time Chinese warships and a British aircraft carrier held a joint maritime exercise.

Landing training.

Amphibious assault vehicles of the Chinese marine forces. 

An officer issues orders during a drill.

Field training.

A special forces trooper.

“Want to travel the world? Come and join the navy!” Decades ago, attracted by this romantic invitation, many young Chinese joined the naval forces. However, until their retirement, many never went beyond the nation’s territorial waters.

It is a dream of 30 years. In 1980, a huge naval fleet comprised of convoys, survey ships, and logistical support ships, for the first time sailed out of Chinese territorial waters, passed island chains, and entered the Pacific Ocean.

This taskforce guaranteed China’s launching of carrier rockets to designated sea areas in the South Pacific. Its voyage covered four time zones, spanning 8,000 nautical miles.

En route, the fleet did not stop. The first generation of ocean-going supply ships, domestically developed and manufactured, replenished ships during the expedition up to 58 times. Every resupply maneuver attracted foreign planes and ships to observe and photograph operations. After analyzing the images, foreign naval forces determined that Chinese naval forces could handle such resupply and were now capable of ocean navigation.

Since then, Chinese sea power has carved out many new channels on the ocean.

On June 20, 1956, the first-time visiting Soviet Pacific Fleet extended an invitation to the Chinese naval forces to visit their country. However, with only destroyers imported from the former Soviet Union and weathered warships left behind by the Kuomintang, the Chinese navy had no warships designed and manufactured in China. Visiting a foreign country was then a dream.

A generational effort achieved the objective in 1985.

From November 16, 1985, to January 19, 1986, a fleet comprising the guided missile destroyer Hefei and the ocean supply ship Fengcang embarked on its first foreign visit. The mission itinerancy included calls at Pakistan’s Karachi Port, Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port, and Bangladesh’s Chittagong Port. It was the first visit of China’s fleet to foreign countries. When bidding farewell to these South Asian countries, many overseas Chinese gathered to see off the fleet. With horns honking, even children in their mothers’ arms waved goodbye to the fleet.

Since then, China’s naval forces ventured beyond territorial waters 31 times, visiting almost 40 nations, crossing the seas to foreign lands.

In December 1997, the guided missile destroyers Harbin and Zhuhai, and the supply ship Nancang sailed across the Pacific. They not only visited the United States, Mexico, Peru, and Chile for the first time, but also accomplished the fleet’s first voyage circumnavigating the Pacific.

In July 2000, the guided missile destroyer Shenzhen and the supply ship Nancang for the first time traversed the South Indian Ocean, skirted round the Cape of Good Hope, and visited Tanzania and South Africa.

In August 2001, the guided missile destroyer Shenzhen and the supply ship Fengcang visited Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy for the first time.

On May 20, 2002, the guided missile destroyer Qingdao and the supply ship Taicang set sail from Qingdao to circumnavigate the globe. The voyage took more than four months and covered a total of more than 30,000 nautical miles. It set records in terms of the duration at sea, the number of countries visited, the distance traveled, and the number of seas, ship channels, and ports ever passed by a Chinese naval fleet.

Officers and soldiers were tempered by this voyage. The temperature in the cabins reached 50 degrees Celsius. In many sea areas of low latitudes, temperature on the deck was so high that solid shoe soles softened. Even an egg could be cooked on the deck, as confirmed by sailors. Officers and soldiers worked up to nine hours in this sort of heat. When they could finally rest, blisters were common and their clothes were stained with sweat.

Force Protect

On December 26, 2008, a surface fleet comprised of the guided missile destroyers Wuhan and Haikou, and the supply ship Weishanhu, set sail from Sanya and headed towards the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters for escort missions. The fleet’s main task was to safeguard Chinese civilian vessels and crews, and to protect international vessels transporting humanitarian relief supplies passing these waters. By February 1, 2009, 15 such escort missions were successfully completed.

Entering the new millennium, China’s naval forces are prepared to face an expanding range of non-traditional security threats.

On October 22, 2003, Chinese and Pakistani warships carried out a joint rescue exercise in the East China Sea, off the coast of Shanghai. It was the first time Chinese naval forces had conducted joint exercises with foreign counterparts in a non-traditional security field. Later, Chinese navy conducted joint rescue exercises with visiting Indian, French, British, and Australian naval forces.

On June 20, 2004, in waters off the North China Sea, Chinese and British navies held joint maritime exercise in non-traditional security fields. For the first time, 16 naval attachés from 15 countries stationed in China were invited to view this joint search and rescue exercise.

From November 18, 2005, China’s guided missile destroyer Shenzhen and the supply ship Weishanhu visited Pakistan, India and Thailand. They held joint maritime search and rescue exercises with Pakistani, Indian and Thai counterparts, respectively. Since then, China’s navy began to hold joint maritime exercises with foreign forces on foreign waters, gradually expanding the cooperative scope and areas of operation. To date, in their respective territorial waters, the Chinese navy has conducted search and rescue exercises with more than 10 nations, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand.

In 2005, the first-ever China-Russia military exercises, dubbed “Peace Mission 2005,” began in Russia’s Far East City of Vladivostok and moved to the Shandong Peninsula in east China the following day. Chinese naval forces again became the focus of the world. The eight-day-long exercise saw the successful maneuvers of troops from navy, air force, army and paratroops, demonstrating China’s powerful comprehensive battle capability.

Ocean Mobile

In July 2008, on the Yellow Sea a high-performance military drill was carried out within the complex electromagnetic environment. This kind of drill had been conducted for three consecutive years.

Naval commanders, training personnel, experts and professors on information construction came together. Using a modern command system, they viewed the entire drill at a central training base. These experts exchanged views on Chinese navy’s training methods and base construction against the backdrop of electromagnetic environment, while also conferring on naval force informational infrastructure.

China’s naval forces continue to advance, greatly stressing drills and weapons use conducted under battle conditions, and against the background of a complex electromagnetic environment.

Weaponry conditions employed in drills are close to those used in real combat. Greater importance has been attached to examining the efficiency of arms and equipment and the organizing and commanding capabilities of officers. Beneficial experiments have been carried out on real missile attacks under complex circumstances. The actual weapon usage efficiency in drills has been greatly enhanced.

Drills with new equipment have seen steady progress. To get the most of the new weapons and equipment, innovations have been made in respect of the construction of laws and regulations, personnel training and operations.

In the course of rapid development in the last few years, PLA naval forces participated in more intense drills under various authentic combat scenarios. A cooperative operation system has taken preliminary shape. An information supply system has realized major breakthroughs. Development of new combat forces has been reinforced, and military force structure has been further optimized.

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